As professor of USP and acting president of the Brazilian Association of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), Anderi explains the principles, methods and applications of LCA, a major technique for measuring the environmental impact of a product

In recent decades, sustainability issues have achieved space, something unknown until then in society. Environmental impact concern has grown and the problems to be taken into consideration towards a genuinely sustainable development have increased: we cannot focus on complying with an industrial unit’s emission limits for pollution anymore. It’s also necessary to manage the effects that spread from the product throughout its life cycle, as well as understand and mitigate the social risks involved.

The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) has been developed to handle the high complexity to estimate all the environmental effects in each stage of production, consumption and discarding of a product, whether it is a consumer good or service. Gil Anderi da Silva is one of the pioneers in the use of the tool in Brazil. He is an Associate Professor of the Department of Chemical Engineering (USP), with a post-doctorate degree by the Georgia Institute of Technology (EUA), and also one the founders and current president of the Brazilian Life Cycle Association (ABCV).

In an exclusive interview with bluevision, Gil Anderi explained the life cycle thinking and the basics, methods and applications of LCA. Read below:

Please explain the concept of the life cycle of a product or a service.
When I started dealing with LCA, back in the last century, a company raised these issues, as an environmental concern, only within the walls of the factory. Its focus was the process, without minding what came before or after it. Through the evolution of the concept, it was perceived that the product should be assessed until reaching the final customer. For example, an intermediate product of the petrochemical industry is processed in another industry afterward. In other words, there is a whole course to become a finished product; we also need to think on the raw material and where it comes from. Then, the focus was on the product; however, it wasn’t enough to know the environmental impacts associated to it.

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To assess the related impacts, it’s been assumed that it should be noted a long production chain, from the time when the natural resource is taken, passing through a number of stages of an industrial chain until manufacturing, and that its effects continue to occur in the retailing and consumer sectors and in the final disposal. Therefore, the product’s life cycle is a set of actions since the removal of the set of elements from nature, passing through the production chain links until retailing, consumption and final destination.

And there’s always the question the “boring student” asks you: why call it cycle? Because the concept originated from the idea that the start and end of the product have the same place, which is the environment. Thus, in any case, a cycle occurs.

What is the application of this life cycle assessment? What kind of information and/or conclusions are possible can be drawn from this method?
The approach builds the life cycle in the environment and the concern in knowing how much a product impacts the environment. The assessment has this connotation. I am among those who assert that all environmental impact on the planet is related to products. Each action through the product’s life cycle potentially causes an impact. When the first drop of oil is removed from nature, such drop will someday be a plastic part of a water bottle, which starts to be responsible for any impact in the environment. A complete LCA handles all these actions and measures how much the product is responsible for it. This is the concept; it also must be formed to become viable later. In short, this is the result: it assesses and measures environmental impacts associated to products which mostly reach the end consumer.

What is the general basis of the method and the main goal when applying the LCA in a product?
It’s essentially comparative. It compares the impact of two products. Years back, a manager at Braskem asked me to compare two products of the company, the PVC and the polyethylene. I told him it could not be done, since they are two intermediate products and I cannot compare the performance of both, because from the industry until the return to nature a lot will happen. I suggested to him that we could compare one meter of a PVC tube and one meter of a polyethylene tube. A study must be conducted about a product that reaches its final use.

However, that comparative feature needs special care. I have seen a piece on TV saying that barbecue has more environmental impacts than using a car. It mixes data that cannot be compared. We can only compare environmental impact in products with the same function; and the purpose of the product is to meet a need or a wish of the human being. You don´t eat the car or transport yourself with a piece of meat. You must compare the need of product A and product B, as, for example, ethanol and gasoline. And it’s necessary to be clear that the comparison should not deal with comparing the energy-generating capacity of each product, but the capacity to carry a person for, I don´t know, 1,000 kilometers.

In addition to proposing the comparison between two products, the LCA has other goals: environmental labeling and development of opportunities to improve the environmental performance of products. On labeling, the LCA study aims at the production of the environmental label type 3, as defined in the ISO standard, whose requirement has been increasing, mainly in the international market.

I’ll give you an example of identifying opportunities. We did a study here at the time of the small plastic shopping bags, comparing them with bags of six different materials. We were scared: the green polyethylene bag provided a very different result. We looked for the data and realized that information was lagged, as they have identified the use of a type of agrotoxic already discarded and even banned from the country – and that, on the study, has greatly increased the toxicity of the soil. In this case, if the data were correct, it would be an opportunity to identify at which point there is a great impact and to change the highly impacting agrotoxic by another.

How is it possible to compare different environmental questions, as the use of the soil, waste of water resources and greenhouse gas emissions, for example, for defining whether a productive format is more or less efficient than another?
The result of a LCA study is usually a simple table with two columns. On the first, there is a list of environmental impact categories, such as climate changes, the ozone layer, toxicity, consumption of natural resources, acidification etc. On the second column, its rates.

The first step to perform the study is to identify environmental matters. In other words, all interaction between man and nature which causes impact. I see step by step, and how much man interacts with the environment. There are three forms: removing resources from nature; throwing craps on nature; transforming the physical environment – in this case, to transform the physical environment means soil contamination in agriculture, for example. Each interaction is measured in the flow of material or energy, and there are hundreds, even thousands of environmental aspects. The method gathers everything to generate a rate. For example, all the emissions of all types of gases that cause the destruction of the ozone layer are grouped and generate an impact indicator from then on.

The clean and scientific result considers 10 to 15 indicators of two products and defines the comparison using the same method for each product category. For example, if we assess dust bags in large volume, we will apply the same method to assess the plastic and paper ones. In the case of ethanol and gasoline, you compare and see that in the 15 categories, the number vary. You present what the numbers show, but it’s difficult to draw a conclusion there. Thus, the ISO norm stablishes standardization of the indicator’s table as an additional operation: it measures and weights considering global rates as reference to reach a single indicator. The problem is it has no scientific or technical basis.

The relative importance that these factors enforce on categories as a whole is totally subjective. You think the most important factor is climate change, I think it is toxicity. And we both are correct. In other words, you have to be rather careful, have the study done with the same methodological bases, with assumptions clearly stated in the report and the standardization must have the same method. Thus, it’s necessary to disclose the survey results properly and not to sugarcoat it towards one side or the other.

How can the LCA guide the formatting of efficient public policies, besides its utility for the production industry?
In public policies, particularly in the sector of public procurements, purchases with the sustainable bias, the green, this is a much-debated topic. Cetesb, in the state of São Paulo, works a lot on this. However, it’s complicated to analyze because it follows governance rules based on other requirements besides the LCA. Thus, there’s some difficulty when setting a standard. And particularly, the LCA has its difficulties with data interpretation, which makes it difficult to implement it as a public policy in Brazil. However, it works well as a guide.

Worldwide, the WTO accepts the compliance with the international technical standards and this has changed all the international market. In Brazil, the ISO standard is not mandatory, but Inmetro and Fundação Vanzolini already have programs that produce labelling analysis of type 3. Abroad, more advances have been made already. France and Germany have done a lot of thing. The US has an interesting program that sends information for an app in which consumers can choose, based on the LCA, what interests them most on the market shelf.

Can the LCA methodology be used along with the cradle-to-cradle method being additional to one another or are they opposite formats? How do they contribute to promote circular economy?
I was in a congress once and asked two specialists in circular economy about the difference between it, the cradle-to-cradle and the industrial ecology. And they couldn’t point out. Listen, I agree with everything that involves the decrease of environmental impact. However, I believe that, although the economic factor is important, it should not be treated as a priority. In my view, the sustainability tripod should have only two bases: environmental and social.

The way I see it, cradle-to-cradle reuses residues which some step of the chain will dispose and use them in another step. There’s no such thing as zero pollution, but the more crap we can avoid in the environment, the more nature will be thankful. It seems that techniques such as the circular economy do this. However, I can’t see innovation. When we talk about life cycle, we think the cradle and the grave are the same environment. In other words, nature. Thus, cradle-to-cradle means the same. The idea is to take advantage and transform residues in supplies from the same production chain, or from another. The LCA is the technique which better provides information: it handles all the system, has specific cutouts and indicates the routes to problem-solving. However, it has nothing to say.

Content published in May 8, 2019

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